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Yes, flash cars turn heads – just maybe not the heads you expect

In a recent study, both men and women were found to look positively upon those driving flash cars
A recent study revealed that both men and women look positively upon those driving flash cars - Jeff Gilbert

So now it’s been proven. Getting behind the wheel of an upmarket car immediately makes you more attractive to passers-by, who assume you have a high social status and would therefore make a good sexual or romantic partner. In a recent study in Brazil, both men and women were found to look positively upon those driving flash cars, perceiving the expensive vehicle to convey – in the words of the scientists behind the study – “dominance and mating value”.

We kind of already knew this. Or rather, we thought we knew. For decades men have bought fast or expensive cars in the hope that women will notice them; similarly, women find themselves drawn to men who display the trappings of wealth and success.

A quick straw poll of my friends corroborates this and the study’s findings – pretty much everybody (men and women, but particularly women) are to some extent beguiled by a flash car, and at least appreciate the “look” of someone driving a sports car or classic.

It’s something I’ve experienced first-hand. My job involves driving lots of cars, many of which are ostentatiously expensive or clearly performance-orientated, and while I don’t actually own any of them that fact doesn’t seem to make a difference – men and women react palpably more positively to an expensive car than a humdrum everyday hatchback, regardless of whose name is on the logbook. A flash car really does turn heads.

Ed Wiseman drives a Morgan Plus Six in Kent, 2019
Ed Wiseman drives a Morgan Plus Six in Kent, 2019 - Christopher Pledger

A good example of this is the Porsche I’m driving today. It feels tacky to talk about money, but this 911 ‘resto-mod’ is worth around half a million pounds, and as such is one of the most expensive cars touching British tarmac this afternoon. As I grip the steering wheel and launch the car into a sweeping bend, the thunderous exhaust note ripples across a hundred acres of Oxfordshire countryside. Under the white autumn sun, I have turned myself into a spectacle.

Theon Design is a British company that upgrades classic Porsche 911s into modern-day supercars. Founded by Adam Hawley and his wife Lucinda Argy, the company is named after their son Theo – this is a picture-perfect family business, a quaint cottage industry producing some of the most valuable cars in the world, each one built bespoke and to order by a tiny team of specialists.

It’s hard to be blasé about driving such machines. It’s harder still to drive them while their owners are in the passenger seat. Adam laughs politely as I mash a gear change in the pretty village of Deddington, the distinctive smell of clutch haunting the cabin like an awkward guest. People stop to watch. I am having fun.

“If it didn’t have soul or feel, it would be boring to drive,” says Adam. “That’s what makes boring cars boring. They need to have personality.”

Ed Wiseman recharging a BMW i8 hybrid sportscar
Ed Wiseman recharging a BMW i8 hybrid sportscar - Andrew Crowley

Maybe it’s personality that makes this 911 such an attention-grabbing machine. The lady outside the Co-op probably isn’t looking at this car and assessing its value; instead she’s noticed the crisp lines of the bodywork, the crackling chortle of the air-cooled engine on tickover, and the fact that it looks unlike any of the other cars parked nearby.

I wonder what she thinks of it, and, fleetingly, what she thinks of me. Adam describes the child-like grins he sees on his customers’ faces as they take their new toys for inaugural test drives, and I agree that a fast car can be profoundly enjoyable at face value, in total isolation from any audience. But I wonder how much of any expensive car’s appeal lies in the rest of the performance, and its ability to draw the attention of others.

There’s a great deal more nuance to this phenomenon than meets the eye. Yes, a six-figure car like the Theon Porsche generally elicits a different response to, say, a Volkswagen Golf, but there’s no hard and fast rule to what people find attractive. Cars don’t just occupy a sliding scale based on retail price; in reality, the factors that make a car (and by extension its driver) desirable are a mish-mash of speed, design, exhaust note, the vagaries of local cultural preferences, and which way the doors open.

For example, the cars used in the Brazilian study were the 1.4-litre Fiat Strada and the 2.0-litre Toro Volcano – two cars completely absent from Britain’s roads, and two cars which have virtually no cache anywhere in Europe. The Volcano might semaphore success in Brazil, but in the UK it would just look like an off-brand agricultural pickup, like a SsangYong or Great Wall. Affluent farmers are probably driving Toyota Land Cruisers on this side of the pond, and outside of more horsey circles, nobody finds a pickup truck particularly sexy.

At the other end of the automotive spectrum, I drove the new all-electric BMW i5 a few weeks ago. It’s a £100,000 car, which on paper puts it among the likes of the Aston Martin Vantage and Porsche 911 – two cars I know from experience will attract attention in pub car parks.

But because of the BMW’s anonymous looks (and the fact people assume you’re an airport hotel shuttle) nobody really notices this absurdly powerful, highly desirable car that costs almost as much as a small flat. Compare that to, say, a Caterham, which you can buy for less than an electric Hyundai and which is worse than the BMW in every measurable way, and you’ll see what I mean – park one of these cute British sports cars near a beer garden on a sunny day and you’ll feel like a minor celebrity. Among dads, at least.

One thing I’ve learned from driving head-turning cars is that the heads you turn aren’t always the ones that turn yours. The Ariel Nomad is one of my favourite cars in the world but it’s of limited appeal to anybody outside the petrolhead scene.

Meanwhile, the car my girlfriend enjoyed the most from this year was the Citroen Ami, a cute but deeply unmasculine quadricycle with about as much pulling power as a lawnmower. My friend Tom, who drives an old Volkwagen Beetle, concedes that it would be much more helpful to his dating life if his sexual preferences included middle-aged men.

And that’s before you consider the wildly unpredictable opinions and personal tastes of the people you encounter while flaunting your car in the wild. Yes, men are probably drawn to a certain type of car, and women may on average be interested by expensive ones, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody can agree on which cars are ‘hot’. Even within one group chat, there’s no consensus on which cars are in and which are out.

Ed Wiseman filling up the Rolls Royce Dawn at South Mimms services
Ed Wiseman filling up the Rolls Royce Dawn at South Mimms services

“My new neighbour has a [Porsche 911] Carrera and I find it quite gauche,” says one woman.

“I don’t fancy men in Boxsters, but I am partial to a 911,” replies another woman. “And the Land Rover Defender.”

Which brings us on to the final caveat. People are often wrong about cars. The Defender is a slow, uncomfortable and generally awful machine, and yet my young-ish and attractive friend would rather you pick her up in that than a 718. If I ever tried to persuade her that the Porsche was the superior car (and in fact was probably a better buy than the 911 anyway) it would fall on deaf ears, because she is a person and not an issue of Autocar magazine.

And that’s what science can’t explain. Yes, it’s broadly true to say that people like nice things, and that we find successful, affluent people more attractive. But beneath that is the infinite mille-feuille of opinion, conditioning and prejudice that informs the rest of our personalities, whims and dating preferences. Because just like dating, everybody likes an attractive car – but we don’t all agree on what ‘attractive’ really means.